Out of your head & into your body: a how to guide
Negative thoughts can be all-encompassing. Mine tend to sound like, "did I turn the lights off before I left? I wonder what they meant by that? or I really need to email them back." The anxiety-prone mind may disproportionately focus on these thoughts, misinterpreting them as real danger rather than what they are – thoughts. Conscious attention may zoom in on physical sensations (i.e., a beating heart, butterflies in the stomach, or tightness in your chest) and cause further panic.
This is because abstract thoughts are being converted into literal, physical events in your body. Responding to the thoughts as though they were real, imminent danger, the brain alerts the body’s glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, which activate the sympathetic nervous system and result in a range of bodily sensations.
While it can be wildly uncomfortable, an anxiety spiral can grab a hold and reinforce itself. Being hyper-aware of these sensations, despite no sign of true danger, the body and mind may begin to panic about the sensations themselves. This is called hyperarousal. Mentally, it can feel like an increasing sense of dread, quickly getting out of hand. The fight-or-flight response would ordinarily cause someone to take self-preserving action in the face of a threat, but with worry and anxiety, there is no threat, and nowhere to run. So, in essence, the sensations themselves become a trigger for further panic.
These are painful thinking traps — patterns of negative thoughts that distort reality and keep us from seeing things as they really are. When our brain is overtaken by these types of thoughts, we can become stressed, anxious, and depressed. This way of thinking can also
cause us to lash out at others, numb out with substances and distractions, and avoid our daily responsibilities. Sometimes we’re not even aware that we’re experiencing distorted thoughts, but we do notice the unbearable emotions or unwanted behaviors that are quick to follow.
If this feels familiar to you, there are tools based in mindfulness and cognitive behavior
therapy (CBT) to help you arrive back in the present moment, where you have the power to influence your well-being. I work with people to move out of their heads and back into their bodies. We can rely on our bodies to ground us and relax our minds.
How to connect with your body
Here are some practices to help you get out of your negative thinking patterns and into your body. Give them a try, at your own pace, and see what feels right for you.
Release the stored tension in your body. Progressive muscle relaxation technique is a wonderful way to get into your body. Start by slowly, yet firmly tightening your muscles and then gently releasing them. You can begin at your feet and gently work your way up through your legs, stomach, arms, and face – squeezing enough to notice the sensation, then letting go (see more here).
Use your senses as a doorway. Our five main senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight) can serve as safe doorways that allow us to reconnect with our bodies. Try using all of your senses to experience your present. Notice what tastes might linger in your mouth, what you feel where your hand is placed, the colors of things in your line of sight, the sounds, however faint, that surround you, and any scents that might be wafting around your space. You can also experience joy through the five senses by experiencing something that tastes good, a soft blanket for touch, nature sounds to soothe you, watching a sunset, or using essential oils or a candle for a pleasant smell. Gently open yourself up to receiving these sensory gifts. Touch and smell can be especially powerful ways to move out of our thoughts and ground ourselves in the moment.
Take a soothing bath or shower. Instead of just washing up and hopping out, reserve time to ignite your senses. Deeply inhale the scents of your soap or shampoo and feel the warmth of the water on your skin. When you notice yourself slipping into thoughts, bring your attention back to the warmth and scents surrounding you.
Try a body scan meditation. Instead of solely focusing on the breath, this type of meditation focuses on each section of the body. Start at your toes and work your way up to the top of your head, just noticing the sensation in each area. When you encounter a pleasant sensation, pause to savor it. If you encounter an unpleasant emotion, practice allowing it to be, without the need to react or push it away. If you encounter a blank spot, just notice this too. When you drift off into thoughts, that’s okay. Just bring your attention back to the region where you left off (try this guided body scan).
Find refuge in your body. If connecting with your physical body seems scary or overwhelming, this tool can help. Name one location of your body that seems okay to connect to. Maybe it’s your left forearm or the tip of your head. Bring your attention to this safe space, noticing things like the temperature of your skin or the muscle tension. As you become more comfortable with hanging out here, consider expanding your field of focus to include a little more of your body, as much as feels good for you. You decide how far and how fast to go.
Release feel-good hormones. Our touch releases oxytocin, creating a calm and soothing experience. Start with what feels safe for you. Maybe you try putting one hand on your arm, your leg, or over your heart. Bring your attention to the gentle pressure and warmth of your hand upon your body. You can rub or knead your skin to further enhance the feel-good feelings. Consider working your way up to a self-hug — wrapping your arms around your upper body and giving a gentle squeeze.
Move your body freely. A wonderful way to feel our bodies again is by simply moving around. You can use formal movement practices, like yoga or Tai Chi, or more informal movement like stretching, walking, or dancing around. Tuning into our muscles as they tense and loosen, noticing how our arms and legs bend, and how our core balances creates an opportunity to appreciate the breathtaking things our bodies can do.
There’s no right way to get in touch with your body. Go at your own pace and, over time, you’ll be able to tap into safe, comfortable, and soothing ways to move out of your thoughts, ground yourself, and relax right in the safety of your own body.